by Michael D. “Mike” Greene
As the first half of the nineteenth century passed, millions of immigrants followed the Campbells and others to America’s shores. As they came the frontier was pushed further west.
What were small villages on the frontier just a few years before grew into large cities. Cincinnati, Nashville, Pittsburgh and others became centers of commerce, learning, and transportation.
As the country grew, so did Alexander Campbell’s influence and reputation. Before a third of the century had passed, his name had been carried into thousands of households by his two periodicals; The Christian Baptist, and Millennial Harbinger.
His success in debating had exposed his ideas to many more. His preaching tours, which often took him away from home for months at a time, gave him even more exposure. His success as a gentleman farmer ,in what was then Virginia, only added to his reputation.
In 1829, Campbell served as a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention. In 1850, while on a preaching trip to Baltimore he was invited to speak in the nation’s capitol in the House of Representatives chamber. That sermon was heard by statesmen from both houses of Congress./1 His influence was not limited to the sphere of religion.
No doubt influenced by his own experience with higher education, Campbell saw the need for greater educational opportunities which would advance the cause of unity and restoration.
In 1818, he opened Buffalo Seminary in his home at Bethany. This effort continued only four years. While there were more who wanted to attend the school than could be accommodated, Campbell did not see it producing many co-workers in his efforts at reform, so he closed it.
But many of the students went on to become successful in such professions as doctors and lawyers./2
Campbell’s second educational effort met with greater success. In 1839, he announced his intention to open a school aptly named Bethany College. This college would have as its goal a thorough education in the scriptures.
He stated his purpose in the announcement in the Millennial Harbinger:
“We want no scholastic or traditional theology. We desire, however, a much more intimate, critical, and thorough knowledge of the Bible, the whole Bible, as the Book of God – the Book of Life and of human destiny, than is usually or indeed can be, obtained in what are called theological schools.”/3
Later, he wrote of the school:
“Bethany College is the only College known to us in the civilized world, founded on the Bible. It is not a theological school, founded upon human theology, nor a school of divinity, founded upon the Bible; but a literary and scientific institution, founded upon the Bible as the basis of all science and true learning.”/4
Bethany College served a growing brotherhood well, training many of its finest preachers for much of the nineteenth century. The school is still in existence today.
In the 1840’s and 50’s, Campbell traveled widely preaching in many places and raising money for his beloved Bethany College. But the outbreak of the Civil War brought significant reduction to those travels.
Much of his support came from brethren and churches in the south as did many students. He now had to limit his travels to places nearer home. His age was also becoming a factor.
When the war broke out, Campbell was in his early seventies and soon the ravages of time took its toll. He gave over the editorship of the Harbinger, the pulpit at Bethany church, and the presidency of Bethany College to others.
He attended his last worship service at his beloved Bethany church February 11, 1866. He passed from this life, appropriately enough, on the Lord’s Day, March 4, 1866. At his bedside was his faithful wife, Selina, other family members and a host of friends.
He was buried in “God’s little acre” across the road from the house John Brown had given him many years before. A grieved brotherhood extended condolences to the family and mourned his passing.
When his father Thomas, predicted many years before that Alexander would wear many a ragged coat due to his commitment to preach the principles contained in the Declaration and Address and the Bible, neither of them could have known what lay ahead.
Could they have envisioned the breadth and scope of Alexander’s influence? Could they have foreseen a powerful debater, writer, preacher, educator? Could they have foreseen the impact this man from Bethany would have on the religious life of the multitudes who joined him in his “search for the ancient order of things” during his lifetime and the millions who have done so since?
The man whose influence continues well beyond his lifetime is the rare man indeed. So was the man known as the “sage of Bethany,” Alexander Campbell.
1/Foster, Douglas, A., Ed., The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, 2004, Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 113, 14.
2/ Ibid, 120.
3/Campbell, Alexander, “A New Institution,” Millennial Harbinger, New Series, Vol. 3, No. 10 (October, 1839), 446.
4/ Campbell, Alexander, “Bethany College,” Millennial Harbinger, Third Series, Vol. 7, No. 5 (May, 1850), 291.